Is there a Cure for Headaches?
In honor of the launch of our new name, Root Cause Medical Clinic, I wanted to write about the most common complaints patients come in to see us about and what we do that is so effective and different as compared to what most other clinicians do.
Sometimes I forget how unique our thought process is until I’m speaking to a patient about their problems and frustrations regarding their health. This was one of the reasons we changed our name; we have always discussed our approach of “getting to the root cause” with our patients, and we have found the concept is not only instantly comprehended for its meaning, but most realize they have never been evaluated from that viewpoint before. When they hear how root cause medicine works and experience the thought process as we review through their personal health history, one for one they feel it makes sense. And once they learn of our success rate, they are excited to begin the program.
Tension Headaches, Migraines and Cluster Headaches.
A common remark from patients when I ask them if they have headaches is: “I just have the normal headaches.” It’s interesting that we would ever think pain in our head is normal, but we do. Why? Because we are told it is.
In our country “normal” has become a synonym for “common”. In other words, since headaches, particularly tension headaches, are common, people often speak of them as normal and therefore aren’t concerned about having them.
If taking a drug “handles” the pain, albeit temporarily, individuals frequently don’t think twice about it. They feel they have a “solution”. When I point out that truly solving the root cause of headaches would mean they wouldn’t return; patients begin to see the difference between taking a drug and actually solving the problem.
There’s a two-fold danger associated with taking medications for headaches:
- Not only does the drug work temporarily, allowing the headache to return, but the actual root cause underlying the headache can, and frequently is, affecting other aspects of a person’s health. E.g. the root cause of my headaches, as an example, also affected my digestion and hormonal balance.
- The repeated use of drugs has side effects, creating health risks. Specifically the medications commonly used are known to cause your headache to increase in frequency (how does that make sense to anyone!). We discuss this is greater detail below.
Headache disorders are common; they are the most common disorders of the nervous system. Recurrent sufferers can experience disability, in fact headaches rank in the top 10 causes of disability worldwide. Reduced quality of life and financial burden also result due to the condition.
The World Health Organization states: “the majority of headache sufferers are not diagnosed appropriately by their health-care provider.” I couldn’t agree more. As a clinician who sees what the proper treatment can do to completely resolve headaches, it is terribly unfortunate to realize so many continue to suffer needlessly while being told temporary relief is the best they can expect.
The primary headache disorders are tension headache, migraine, and cluster headache. While headaches can be caused by, or occur secondarily from, a variety of conditions, the most common secondary cause of headaches is medication overuse, according to the World Health Organization. Is that surprising? I’ll have to admit, it was to me.
Despite a long history of treating patients, I found this statistic surprising and at the same time, deeply troubling. When you consider that for the most part drugs are all that’s offered to the typical sufferer, to then learn they end up being the most common cause of worsening the condition they are supposed to treat, we obviously have a large problem on our hands.
Tension Headaches – the most common type of headache
Sometimes called stress headaches, tension headaches vary widely in their intensity, frequency and duration. They can be periodic or chronic. The latter is defined as a headache suffered more than 15 days out of the month. The pain level is typically mild to moderate, can feel like a tight band around one’s head or a feeling of pressure, although there are many variations. Depending on its severity the headache can interfere with the ability to perform one’s routine activities and tend to last from half an hour up to several days.
Thirty to 80% of American adults suffer from occasional tension headaches. Chronic daily tension headaches are suffered by 3% of the population with women suffering twice as often as men.
Do you have tension headaches? Contact us here for a FREE consultation or give us a call at 408-733-0400.
Causes of Tension Headaches according to Traditional Medicine
According to the Cleveland Clinic there is no single cause for tension headaches. They are not genetic. Muscle tension can contribute, as can stress from family or work commitments. Additional causes are listed as insomnia, fatigue, depression and anxiety.
Migraine is the 3rd most prevalent illness in the world, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. A quarter of American households include an individual suffering from migraine. It’s estimated 12% of our population suffers, including children. The incidence of migraine is most common in the age group of 25 to 55. Women suffer 3 times more often than men, with the shift towards women occurring after puberty. Prior to puberty, girls and boys suffer equally. Shifts and fluctuations of the hormone estrogen are associated with the increased prevalence seen in women.
Almost 10% of American children suffer from migraine, causing them to miss school twice as often as those who don’t suffer. The genetic link is strong; a full 90% of migraine sufferers have a family member who suffers. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, having a genetic link does not mean one MUST suffer.
The average incidence is estimated at once or twice per month, but millions suffer migraine 15 days of the month. Debilitating, more than 90% of those suffering are unable to work or function normally when they have a migraine. Duration of migraines is anywhere from 4 hours to as long as 3 days. Sadly over 20% of chronic sufferers are disabled.
It’s cited that depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances are common for those who suffer chronically. Due to the association, migraine sufferers are frequently prescribed psychiatric medications.
Anyone who has suffered from migraines has likely wondered if something serious is causing their pain. Feeling the need to rule out a brain tumor or other dreaded disease is a normal reaction. There are red flags that make getting a brain MRI a good idea.
- numbness in the arms or legs,
- nausea or vomiting,
- vision problems,
- difficulty speaking or finding the correct words.
Do keep in mind nausea, vomiting and vision issues are common with migraine as well, and do not necessarily mean anything more serious, but if numbness and speech problems occur, it is smart to investigate further.
When the stress and worry of needing to rule out something like a brain tumor begins to take its toll, I definitely encourage my patients to get an MRI to decrease their concern. Such continued stress will be of no help during their healing process. Keep in mind the incidence of brain tumors increases with age, occurring most frequently between the ages of 65 and 70. Often the signs associated with brain tumors in the elderly are problems of memory and speech. Therefore, it can be relieving to know the age of prime incidence of migraine and brain tumors do not overlap typically.
If you’ve ever experienced the pain of migraine you won’t be surprised to learn that every 10 seconds someone goes to the emergency room complaining of head pain. Over one million of those visits are for acute migraine attacks. Having suffered personally, I wouldn’t wish the pain of a migraine on anyone.
Migraines are typically severe in their pain level which is described as throbbing, most often affecting just one side of the head (although 1/3 of the time both sides are affected). Migraine is made worse by routine activity, is associated with light sensitivity about 25% of the time, as well as sound sensitivity, and often accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
When it comes to migraine, almost 18% of women suffer while men are less affected at about 6%.
Prevalence varies, but was highest in the 35 to 45 year age range for both men and women, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The cause of migraines is considered unknown beyond a genetic association and fluctuations of estrogen in women. I well remember, after suffering my first few migraines, what my doctor said. “Your mother has migraines – it’s genetic.” This was pretty depressing to hear at age 16 when I had watched my mother suffering for as long as I could remember. She would go to bed and just moan in pain and I was helpless to know what to do for her. Other than codeine, my doctor had literally nothing to offer me. I recall feeling quite hopeless about it. [Spoiler alert: I not only rid myself of my migraines, but my mother too! It’s been decades and not a single migraine has occurred for either of us.]
Do you have migraines? Contact us here for a FREE consultation or give us a call at 408-733-0400.
Can you suffer from both Migraines and Tension Headaches?
Yes, and I know that both professionally and personally. I used to suffer migraines at least once per month, typically around my cycle, while the rest of the month I was plagued by my “regular headaches”, as I used to call them. A day without a headache was a rare thing for me. As a matter of fact I distinctly remember the time when I started to see improvement of my headaches. It was mid-day when I thought, “What’s different? Oh, my head doesn’t hurt!” It was such a daily occurrence that it took me some time to spot what was different.
Cluster headaches are the least common of the headaches, affect approximately 1 individual in 1,000. They are characterized by pain in and around one eye. The incidence of cluster headaches is more common in men than women, at a ratio of approximately 4 to 1, typically beginning between the ages of 20 and 40.
Cluster headaches can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 4 hours and can recur several times per day. They are termed “cluster headaches” because the attacks tend to come in a group followed by a break in time before beginning again.
There is no known definitive cause of cluster headaches. There are some theories, but nothing definitive beyond appreciating that a nerve in the face creates the pain.
Treatment for Headaches utilized by Traditional Medicine
The most common treatment recommended for headaches is medication. It is by far the go-to “solution”.
Other protocols mentioned include stress management, evaluating the neck for evidence of pinched nerves, and neck exercises to reduce tension in tight muscles. I concur with these protocols and we utilize them in Root Cause Medicine as well.
When it comes to migraines associated with the menstrual cycle, women are often prescribed synthetic hormones such as the birth control pill to modulate hormone fluctuations. I very much disagree with this approach, since a natural bio-identical hormonal treatment works much better without suppressing a woman’s natural hormonal balance.
Interestingly, the number one factor spurring progression of headache incidence from occasional to frequent is medication, especially narcotics, opioids and barbiturate drugs. But over the counter medications create risk as well.
The problem is so pervasive it has a name: MOH – Medication Overuse Headache.
An example of narcotic/opioids is codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone. Common barbiturates are Esgic, Phrenilin, Fiorinal and butalbital. If a patient is using medications to stop a headache once it has begun (called abortive therapy), they are encouraged to stop, as this practice is considered a known risk of increasing headache frequency.
Just 5 days per month of opioid or barbiturate use is noted to increase the number of headaches suffered. The “solution” suggested by traditional medicine is avoiding such medications as opioids while trying to discover other medications that “work”.
What alternative drugs are suggested?
Short-acting over the counter medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, Excedrin and ibuprofen are considered safer alternatives to opioids, narcotics and barbiturates. But the risk of increasing headache frequency is present with these medications as well. If taken every other day, or 15 days out of the month, these non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) too, are known to increase headache frequency.
Some studies place caffeine in the category of increasing headaches, even a single cup for those at risk.
It’s interesting that the very substances known to abort a headache actually results in increased frequency. It is a bit insidious that the chemical which “appears” to work at the time, actually causes you to come back for more with greater frequency.
What’s most interesting is the treatments we find actually “do” work and “do” get to the root cause of headaches, are not mentioned by the traditional medicine. In the case of headaches, root cause medicine couldn’t be more different than traditional medicine; their approach is predominated by drug treatment designed to reduce symptoms, while root cause medicine offers a natural approach that finds resolution in the vast majority of patients.
Are we saying tension, migraine and cluster headaches can be resolved? Yes, that’s exactly what we experience with our patients. A truly drug-free resolution – It’s exciting!
Conditions Linked to Headaches – the Root Cause Medicine Approach
What follows is a list of conditions we have discovered are frequently linked to headaches. You won’t suffer from all of these, but you can look down the list and get an idea of what might be contributing to your headaches. The solution for all of the conditions is a natural one and they don’t take long to resolve. Even if you’ve suffered for decades, the problem of headaches is not a difficult one once the root cause is identified.
- Food sensitivities – food can act like more of a toxin and create inflammation, leading to headaches. This is THE most common cause of headaches in our experience.
- Hormonal imbalance – very common in women who notice a link between their cycle and the onset of headaches. Rebalancing hormones is not difficult and completely natural.
- Nerve irritation, particularly of the neck or jaw – our chiropractic and physical therapy departments evaluate for this problem. It is one of the top three underlying causes of headaches in our experience.
- Dehydration, a common problem affecting 75% of Americans. Many people are unaware dehydration is a trigger for headaches so make sure you get your 8 glasses of filtered water every day. Being dehydrated puts you at risk of headaches and many other health problems, so if you are someone who rarely drinks water it would be worthwhile to develop a taste for it. If you need ideas how to do that, let me know.
- Drug use – opioid and over-the-counter medication. What’s great about resolving headaches at the root is patients no longer require medication.
- Malabsorption/maldigestion – the gut may seem a long way from your head, but it’s known as the second brain for a reason. If your food isn’t turning into proper fuel your cells won’t get properly fed and your brain requires fuel just as much as the rest of your body. Such digestive issues can create not only headaches but a multitude of other problems.
- Unstable blood sugar – as we mentioned above, unstable blood sugar can be a digestive problem, but it can also occur secondarily to food sensitivities and hormonal imbalance.
- Insomnia – we all need adequate rest to recharge the “battery”. Insufficient rest can be a choice (simply not allowing enough time to sleep), but it can also be the result of adrenal, thyroid, diet and food choices, infections and/or food sensitivities.
- Fatigue – this can sometimes be a “chicken or the egg” question. Does the pain of the headache create fatigue or does the root cause that is creating the fatigue create the headache? In my experience we see both.
- Constipation – when the bowels slow, toxic waste products are re-circulated throughout the body. Headache can be a result.
- Infections, Toxicity – undiagnosed infections or toxins, typically in the gut, put a burden on the body’s immune system, digestive tract and can cause headaches.
- Sinusitis and Allergies – if you’ve ever had a bad head cold and gotten congested, you’ve likely experience how the pressure in your head can cause it to ache. This is true for allergies and sinus problems.
- Inflammation – chronic inflammation is the root cause of all degenerative disease. Inflammation can become widespread affecting many parts of the body and headaches can result.
That’s a long list, I know. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Whatever is at the root cause of your headaches can be identified and treated.
What does Pain mean?
Not to state the obvious, but the body gives us pain in order to communicate something is wrong. It’s never a good idea to ignore pain for that reason. What’s interesting about headaches, regardless of the type, is the root cause of it doesn’t typically reside in the head. That may sound odd, but it’s not unusual in root cause medicine for the real culprit of the problem to be found at a point distant to the symptom. It’s the reason solely focusing on the symptom, and not appreciating root cause, can lead one to only manage symptoms and fail to truly remedy the problem.
It’s true that pinched nerves of the neck are very close to the head, but food sensitivities, hormonal imbalance, and the rest of the list mentioned above, are far from a “head” problem; yet they most certainly do cause headaches.
The body doesn’t operate in a vacuum. A problem that is enough to create headaches is most often creating other imbalances in the body. The beauty of root cause medicine is when you get to the root of one problem, you’re often handling several other problems as well, whether you’re aware of them or not.
Almost one for one our patients are incredulous that they would or ever could be free of headaches, be they tension, migraine or cluster. It’s not surprising. They have heard from every traditional doctor they have ever gone to that the best they can do is “manage” their symptoms because there is no real cure. I disagree.
We regularly treat patients whose headaches are resolved completely. There are many long term migraine sufferers that have completely ceased having migraines, never to experience them again. Is this a rare occurrence? No. It’s regular practice here. I can be so bold as to say we have rarely met a migraine we couldn’t conquer. I only say that because it’s a fact. How do we do it? It’s not magic.
There commonly are one to three key root causes, that once identified and treated, resolve headaches for good.
The 3 most common Root Causes of Headaches
Below of the most common underlying root causes of headaches, based on 25 years of experience. This list is accurate for tension headaches, migraines and cluster headaches.
1.Food sensitivities – by far the most common and present in an extremely high percentage of headache sufferers is a food or foods they don’t tolerate. You may think, but I don’t see any rhyme or reason between what I eat and my headaches. That’s very astute and it is the nature of food sensitivities, as compared to food allergies, that can make the cause and effect relationship difficult to analyze.
Food allergies tend to have a short reaction time, typically an hour or so. Obviously, that makes connecting the dots between a food and headache development, easy to detect. Food sensitivities on the other hand can have a long delay in their response time. How long? Anywhere from several hours up to several days. This is why food sensitivities can go undetected.
When the relationship is understood however, detection becomes easy and it is one of the key aspects in headache resolution. Patients are always so surprised when their headaches begin to abate with a simple dietary change. It just seems too darn simple. All that’s important is it works.
2.Nerve irritation – it only makes sense that pain can come from irritated nerves. We find that to be the case often. The neck, which sends branches of nerves into the head, is often the site of irritated nerves. The jaw of TMJ can also be irritated or out of proper alignment, and can be the root of headache.
Normalizing alignment of the neck and jaw can make a huge difference for headache sufferers. It is for this reason we have the physical department composed of doctors of chiropractic and physical therapy in Root Cause Medical Clinic.
3.Hormonal imbalance – this primarily affects women, but recall women are affected three times more often with migraines than men. Not all women affected notice a correlation between their headaches, particularly migraine, and their menstrual cycle. But when they do see a connection, it is frequently a progesterone deficiency.
It’s an interesting cause and effect relationship and epitomizes the importance of getting to the root cause. It’s estrogen fluctuations that cause migraine, but the reason estrogen fluctuates as much as it does is due to progesterone.
The way I explain it in my lectures is that estrogen and progesterone both drop in anticipation of the beginning of menstruation. It is the drop of hormones that triggers the lining of the uterus to slough off. How far estrogen drops is dictated by progesterone. You can liken it to the progesterone level as the “floor” and estrogen will fall as low as progesterone allows it to. If progesterone falls a normal amount, estrogen too will fall within normal limits. But if progesterone is deficient, it will fall precipitously allowing estrogen to do the same. It is the precipitous drop of estrogen that creates a migraine.
The solution? It’s not difficult to normalize hormone levels, naturally, with no synthetic hormones or other drugs.
Are there more factors?
Yes, you can look at the long list above that mentions a variety of causes. But in the vast majority of cases, the three factors mentioned above are what we find most commonly to be at the root cause of headaches.
Without identifying and addressing the underlying root cause you’re never going to solve your headache problem. Without making dietary and lifestyle changes, headache problems will remain.
We are very honest and straightforward with our patients. We are not going to tell you that swallowing a pain pill or even a vitamin each day is going to solve your headache problem. We won’t tell you that because it just isn’t true.
We want each and every patient to have an ability to meet with us and truly understand our root cause approach before they pay for any visits. It is for this reason your initial consultation visit is complimentary.
We want success with our patients as much as they want to be successful. This is a team approach. We don’t just hand our patients a pill, far from it. We work extensively together to change diet, lifestyle, repair faulty organ function and more. This doesn’t happen overnight and it won’t occur without help. Therefore we like to ensure each and every patient is ready to embark upon the adventure to regain, retain and reclaim their health with a clear understanding that it will require some work and change on their part. But they won’t be alone; we are right there with them.
As we like to say, with patient compliance, success is all but assured.
Do you need help with headaches? Do you know someone who does? If so please share this with them. Let’s end the discomfort and inconvenience.
Contact us here for a FREE consultation or give us a call at 408-733-0400.
We help the world’s busiest people regain, retain and reclaim their health, energy and resilience. We can help you!
To reclaiming your best health,
Dr. Vikki Petersen DC, CCN
Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner
Founder of Root Cause Medical Clinic
Author of “The Gluten Effect”
Author of eBook: “Gluten Intolerance – What You Don’t Know May Be Killing You!”